Ciaran Fitzgerald: Agri-food industry needs to focus on international consumer

The importance of Irish agriculture and the agri-food industry is best promoted by its practitioners.

Ireland exports around 85% of its agricultural produce, food and drink.

In that context, the people whose opinion counts most about the integrity of our production and its future, are primarily international consumers across 140 countries worldwide.

In a market-led world, to continue to be successful, the focus of our food and drink companies must be on international consumer trends and on maintaining competitiveness in global markets.

Positive feedback internationally

The good news is that the feedback from the international consumer is largely positive.

As international demand evolves and environmental criteria becomes an additional route-to-market challenge, Ireland’s standing is improving relative to other major food exporters e.g. South America whose environmental credentials are drastically inferior.

So far, so optimistic, but clearly to continue to deliver output, jobs and exports, Irish producers and processors must have ‘permission’ to operate within the Irish economy.

While the local Irish consumer is a useful barometer of the assessment of the ‘status’ of continuing permission to produce, clearly the generality of public opinion and in particular the impact of public opinion on government regulators, policy makers and economic lenders, is also hugely significant.

Domestic market

Here the picture is not so clear.

Based on the public and media discussions and representations throughout 2020, one of the key challenges for Irish agriculture, and in particular its representative bodies, is to remind a sceptical, somewhat disbelieving and even negative Irish body politic of its 21st century relevance and uniquely positive contribution to the rural, regional and national economy.

It is increasingly clear in terms of informing the policy debate on the complex challenge of balancing the unique economic and regional impact of agri-growth and development of jobs and exports while reducing or abating negative environmental impacts.

If Irish agriculture doesn’t properly articulate its primacy and its current and future relevance, nobody else will.

In recent articles, I have highlighted how one major obstacle to a positive perception of agriculture is the delusional orthodox economic accounts represented by GDP [Gross Domestic Product] figures.

These hugely exaggerate flow through money from the multinational sector while at the same time totally excluding the Irish agri-sector’s enormous Irish economy expenditure on raw materials services and people.

Most of us know that multinational profits belong to multinational corporations and their shareholders.

Yet, a certain vein of economic commentary prefers to clutch at the tiny Irish economy footprint of these pass-through statistics, rather than accept the real economic multiplier impact of the Irish agri-sector, which buys 85% of all its inputs in Ireland, supporting around 260,000 jobs or one in eight in the Irish economy.

Misrepresentation about emissions

A second, but no less forbidding obstacle to the acceptance of Irish agri’s hugely positive impact on the Irish society, economy and environment, is the deeply flawed mainstream media-driven misrepresentation of agriculture’s infamous 30% of Ireland’s national carbon accounts emissions.

In that context, it has been interesting to observe the silence of the anti-agri lobby in recent weeks as we read about the public health and environmental mess that is Irish Water or the positive Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on the significant decline of agriculture emissions in 2019, driven principally by a 10.1% reduction in fertiliser usage.

Good news means no news from these quarters!

The stance of the anti-agri lobby moreover is binary and tribal. For Irish climate activists to win, Irish agri must lose and lose significantly.

As for growing demand for global nutrition from a global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the response seems to be – let them eat gluten free cake or grasshoppers!

Agri-food industry

The key takeaway for me from all of the above is that the only people who have the interest, capability and objectivity of speaking positively to Irish agriculture’s relevance in terms of positive socio-economic impact, is the agri-food industry itself.

How we do this is important:

  • Speaking to ourselves at agri-only gatherings won’t ‘cut the mustard’ and won’t cut through the combination of wishful economics and aggressive sectarian anti-agri propaganda;
  • Improved communication without improved performance won’t move any dial in favour of the sector;
  • Throughout the agricultural calendar, there are plenty of opportunities and events that can be used to highlight the sectors economic relevance AND its performance in terms of environmental compliance;
  • The sector needs to commit to regular updates highlighting its real time achievements, challenges and performance against objective economic and environmental barometers;
  • Communication must be tailored towards an audience that may not be aware of all of the elements of food demand and supply and in particular food pricing;
  • Currently an annual statement of income that excludes significant income streams, and suggests only that the vast majority of farmers are not making a sustainable income, only feeds the sunset industry view of the sector;
  • If there is no appetite with the national broadcaster for either progressive developments such as increasing global demand for Irish produce based on its sustainability credentials, or balanced, fact-based debate on climate challenges, then alternative platforms must and can be developed;
  • The sector also needs to find a better balance between the natural farmer / processor conflicts around producer price margins and returns and a messaging that screams that there is no future for agriculture  in Ireland.

Irish agriculture, with its huge export capability whereby we produce enough dairy and meat products to feed the equivalent of 40 plus million versus a local population of around 4.5 million, has this unique profile whereby the vast majority of its consumers are in the global market place.

While from a successful business perspective global markets require global focus, local permission to produce and perhaps perversely ‘permission’ to continue to provide jobs, economic impact and exports, needs better communication with local decision makers if the unique economic impact of the Irish agri-sector is to be sustained.